Barber weekend, Friday notes

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Ordinarily I’m on site but the quirk of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule having its two West Coast races at Long Beach and Phoenix book-ending this month, and with a good amount of family in Phoenix, it made the decision to not be at Barber Motorsports Park seem smart when I decided to not bypass it.

Then the Fernando Alonso news happened along with his decision to attend, and Zach Veach would also wind up making his debut in an injury fill-in role for JR Hildebrand, and I just had to laugh at myself that I’m not there, the first road or street race I’m missing since Toronto 2015 (was at 24 Hours of Le Mans). So voluntarily, that means this is the first one I just decided to skip since the Houston doubleheader in the sweltering heat and humidity of June, 2014.

Alas, there’s still a few things to note after the Friday sessions are in the books:

Friday practice 1, results
Friday practice 2, results

BAGS PACKED, WORDS UTTERED ABOUT A SPANIARD

His test date of May 3 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway confirmed, now the countdown begins until Fernando Alonso arrives in Birmingham, Ala. for this weekend’s dry run and initiation with the team. Alonso posted a photo that he was on his way:

And naturally, the Alonso topic came up in a pair of media availabilities in-between the two practice sessions.

Graham Rahal minced no words in saying how much he thinks Alonso will like Indianapolis.

“For Alonso, I think he’s going to have a ball,” said Barber’s two-time defending runner-up. “He’s going to come over here. He’s going to be in a damned good car. You guys know that, and he’s going to have fun.

“He’s going to get passed and pass more cars in one month than he will in his entire Formula 1 career combined, but he’s going to have a complete blast, and I think it’s great for our sport that he has the interest that he has in it, and I hope that other guys want to come do it, too.”

The Team Penske trio of Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Will Power also weighed in.

Said Newgarden, “That’s what the race is all about, having the best in the world run it and compete in it, so just adding a guy like Alonso is a great addition for IndyCar, and I think it’s going to be a great race for him, so we’re all excited to get to May and see how he does.”

Power added, “That’s going to be attract a lot of European media and just media around the world, so definitely helps put us on the map a little more. Not that the Indy 500 needs much more putting on the map, but it all helps.”

Pagenaud could add a bit more to the discussion because he’s raced at the grandest sports car race of them all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and knows how much that race means in the grand scheme of things.

But he noted that since he’s the only one of the three who grew up in Europe, the pulse is palpable to when Nigel Mansell did the series in 1993 after winning the 1992 World Championship.

“Last time that really happened was Mansell. I was a kid and I remember when he made the jump to IndyCar. It really was a very — it was very loud, I would say, as a move,” Pagenaud said.

“I think Alonso, two-time world champion in Formula 1 coming here for something he’s not used to, I think it’s very courageous. It’s going to be exciting, I think, even for us just to see how he does, and he’s going to bring an incredible following from Europe, from Spain, and Spaniard people are very excited about racing in general, so I think it’s fantastic for IndyCar. It’s a new era, I think. It really is going to help us grow even more. We’re obviously growing very well right now, but this is going to be a big boost.”

It seems the buzz in the paddock is high about Alonso – it remains arguably as big if not bigger a talking point than the rest of this weekend – and the fever will only intensify once he and McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown actually arrive.

MIGHT PIGOT BE IN IT, AS WELL? 

After a respectable start to 2017, Spencer Pigot has been caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of his month of May. He’ll drive the INDYCAR Grand Prix in his usual No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on May 13 but for the rest of the month, he doesn’t yet have an Indianapolis 500 seat as team owner Ed Carpenter is set to only run two cars, Carpenter taking over the No. 20 for the ovals starting next week in Phoenix.

Pigot might still be in with a shout for the Indianapolis 500 though, as Rising Star Racing principal Art Wilmes told IndyCar Radio reporter Ryan Myrehn during an Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires practice session.

“I’ve smiled a lot with him the last couple years. We’re hoping this is the last year he’s a part-time driver,” Wilmes said. “We’re still looking for the ‘500… we’re getting close.”

At least one proverbial remaining open seat would be an expected Chevrolet seat at Juncos Racing, the team not having made any announcements since confirming it would enter the ‘500.

Pigot won back-to-back championships with Juncos in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights so already knows Ricardo Juncos’ team well. If the option is no ride or making a return to a team where he’s had success for its Indianapolis 500 debut, it could be a good story to see the latter materialize.

VEACH’S FIRST DAY AT THE INDYCAR OFFICE

Steady progression is always the goal when you make your debut and for Zach Veach, that seemed to be the end game in today’s session as he fills in for JR Hildebrand.

The 22-year-old from Stockdale, Ohio took the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet to a best time of 1:10.6346, 2.542 seconds off the overall leader and 1.6254 seconds behind Pigot in the first session to a 1:09.8659 best lap, 2.1525 seconds off the lead and 1.1 seconds behind Pigot in the second.

Yes, that’s still a significant gap by modern day IndyCar standards – especially when in second practice 1.0995 separated spots 1-20 combined – but it was a sign of development from Veach in his first day in an IndyCar on a road course since September.

A day like that though makes the last in-season debutante’s, RC Enerson at Mid-Ohio last July for Dale Coyne Racing, all the more impressive with what he was able to do as he finished seventh overall in second practice there. Enerson was on site Friday at Barber looking on as an interested spectator as one of the talents on the sidelines who we hope to see back in a car sooner rather than later, an opinion his 2016 teammate at Dale Coyne Racing Conor Daly expressed late Friday.

WHEN THE TRACK OWNER COMES INTO A PRESS CONFERENCE

“Georgina,” a statue that hangs below a bridge near Barber’s incredible motorcycle museum, got mentioned during the Team Penske media availability as track owner and maintainer of the incredible Barber facility, George Barber, got a question in during the press conference. Here’s the transcript:

Q. (From track owner George Barber) Would one of you slow down enough for Georgina to drop into your cockpit for a couple of hot laps?

WILL POWER: Yeah, sure.

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: We could put another seat on the side.

Q. I assume you all have seen Georgina?

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: I haven’t seen her yet – (told it’s the sculpture of the woman hanging from a bridge) oh, that’s her name is Georgina? Yeah, we saw her at the test.

SIMON PAGENAUD: Is she still here or not because I didn’t see her today. But she disturbed me the whole test. I couldn’t make that corner anymore.

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: Is she still out there? Is she out there hanging around?

SIMON PAGENAUD: Yeah, what’s happening?

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: Someone is following. No, yeah, it was pretty funny, yeah. It’s funny how you get used to those things, though, because at the test you noticed it the entire day, you come back and you don’t notice it anymore because you’ve seen it.

SIMON PAGENAUD: Somebody may have taken her on a date or something. I didn’t see her today. I don’t think she’s here.

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: She’s got amazing stamina. Her stamina is better than anyone.

IN OTHER NOTES

We didn’t have an NBCSN practice show today, which allowed for some of the folks you’ll be seeing later this weekend on air and online to peruse the grounds at Barber:

James Hinchcliffe finished second on Dancing with the Stars last fall. And so to learn further, he witnessed some moves today from ASIMO – Honda’s impressive humanoid robot that will serve as the Grand Marshal at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First – in advance of the rest of the weekend.

Next week, per the Indianapolis Business Journal, Indiana Pacers legend Larry Bird is set to drive a retrofitted IndyCar in an attempt to deliver Indianapolis the 2021 NBA All-Star Game. Here’s hoping those efforts go better than the Pacers did in Game 3 last night, after blowing a 20-plus point lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and then forcing Daly to apologize for saying the Pacers were doing well…

This likely merits a greater piece separate beyond a notebook, but it’s worth noting that the brake issue that permeated the St. Petersburg weekend was not at all a story in Long Beach and likely won’t be a story this weekend in Birmingham. Barber isn’t a big brake track as it’s very much a rhythmic occasion. It speaks to the work the teams have done in concert with PFC Brakes, the new supplier this year, that this story has quieted to a whisper.

My MotorSportsTalk colleague Kyle Lavigne will have more in a notebook later today, but Oliver Askew again excelled in the first Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda race of the weekend en route to his second straight victory. Askew controlled the pace from the lead and defended well in his No. 3 Cape Motorsports Tatuus USF-17 Mazda from 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick, the No. 81 Team Pelfrey driver who scored his first USF2000 podium finish.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires ran one practice session today with varying tire strategies shaking up the order there as Shelby Blackstock topped the timesheets there in his No. 51 Belardi Auto Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda. Meanwhile teammate Santiago Urrutia debuted the new gold and black, Arrow Electronics-backed livery on his No. 5 Belardi with SPM car.

Track activity was delayed one hour today by a crash in the first Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires session, as an ARMCO Barrier needed replacing. Nathanial Sparks grabbed pole for that series’ first race later in the afternoon. In other sports car series, Kenton Koch has returned to action in a P1 Motorsports Ligier JS P3 and had the pole for Friday’s late afternoon race of the IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda series. The IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama session practiced but has qualifying and its first race both on Saturday.

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500